Shape and be shaped

Meet the artist: Kevin Tunstall

By Eva Buttacavoli

Photo: Kevin Tunstall, untitled, porcelain, 2014

I’ve got the ceramic bug. Not for the chunky, wheel-thrown glazed mugs I’ve collected from country craft fairs for years, but the contemporary ceramic art, from porcelain that riffs on global trade routes to clay heads that have been decked out with hair extensions and shades to the biomorphic, zany, voluptuous stuff they’re calling anti-ceramic mush, I love it all.

But of all things clay, porcelain is undoubtedly the most ancient, the most revered, the most difficult to work with. Because of its fine grain size, special care must be taken when working with it from the time you take it out of storage until you remove it from the final firing. Thank goodness here in Dayton, we have Kevin Tunstall to feed my cravings.

Born in Akron and raised in Cuyahoga Falls, Kevin’s been an artist, teacher and mentor in Dayton for 20 years. I’ve known Kevin and his work for just the past few, but instantly fell for his sleek-yet-buttery, functional-looking-but-from-what-era, quirky-stenciled, clean and simple forms.

I visited his studio last winter and we recently traded emails so I could learn more.

Tell me about your art training. 

Kevin Tunstall: I got started in clay in high school and took classes in wheel-throwing, hand-building and sculpture inspired by Ron Simon and Akron-based designer/craftsman Don Drumm. I continued formal classes at Clarion University of Pennsylvania and have a degree in Habilitative Sciences with a concentration in Development Disabilities. My parents did not encourage me to go into the arts but I took every class that was offered and helped build a new wood kiln in my senior year. Most of my training came from mentors John Britt while I was at DAI, Peter Beasecker, Susan Lindsay and Nick Joerling; and my students at Stivers. I’ve also attended workshops around the country in places like Arrowmount [School of Arts and Crafts; Gatlinburg, Tennessee] and Haystack [Mountain School of Crafts; Deer Isle, Maine]. I even did a 5-week residency at Haystack—the environment was so inspiring.

Tell me about your work space

KT: Currently I work out of a studio on my residential property. It’s about 350 square feet, but enough to house two pottery wheels, slab roller, kiln and shelving with ample surface space to work on. It was designed and built to match our mid-century modern home that is nestled into a fairly secluded wooded lot. Plenty of nature around for inspiration! I also just joined a collaborative glass studio in the Linden-Davis building. I am excited to start working in the new space.

Tell me about your typical art-making day

KT: The first thing I start doing in the studio is wedging (preparing) clay for hand building or wheel throwing. I usually have a goal I am working for that day. When I am at the potter’s wheel I always start throwing bowls first. Then I move into specific thrown and altered pieces. The next several times I am in the studio it is usually to finish the hand-built attachments on the altered forms. After bisque firing the pieces, glazing to cone 10 oxidation, some will get decals and go back in to the kiln.

Tell me about your career goals

KT: I haven’t exhibited my work in quite a while and hope to get back into some of the galleries and small exhibit spaces that have previously shown my work. I also plan to begin a web presence in order to market my pottery and glass art nationally. Teaching the craft is also a passion of mine. I work with a few students individually and hope to continue helping others succeed in clay.

How do you choose what to make?

KT: I am always inspired by good functional designs that I see while traveling. Things like antiques, glass, art, architecture and items found in nature. This helps to develop a collection of ideas that eventually are transformed into clay.

What are your favorite materials to work with?

KT: Porcelain—the color, translucency, elasticity and feel of the clay body is ideal for my perfectionism. It allows me to obtain and refine my overall aesthetic with glazing and imagery.

How many years as an artist?

KT: Essentially, since high school. But, more seriously since 1992 when I joined the cooperative clay studio at The Dayton Art Institute. Over half my life…

Tell me something that inspired you recently to go in a new direction. 

KT: For years, my previous business partner [Enid Tangeman] and I worked solely with stoneware and a gas salt-firing kiln, but when I built a new studio at my new home, I could only put in an electric kiln. So I switched to porcelain.

What do you collect?

KT: Oil cans and other pouring vessels. They provide great inspiration.

If you could only have one piece of art in your life, what would it be?

KT: A coffee mug!

Is craftsmanship dead?

KT: No. Not at all. In fact, many people are recognizing good quality craftsmanship along with the skill required of it. Handmade objects and art are extremely popular right now.

Eva Buttacavoli is the Executive Director of the Dayton Visual Arts Center. You can reach her at Visuals@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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